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A KIPP charter school in the Bronx. (Creative Commons)

A KIPP charter school in the Bronx. (Creative Commons)

KIPP postpones new ‘intentionally integrated’ charter in Harlem due to coronavirus uncertainty

An “intentionally integrated” charter school in Harlem that was planning to welcome its inaugural class this fall will instead postpone its opening a full year due to the coronavirus.

In a letter to the hundreds of families that applied for the school’s April lottery, KIPP Beyond Middle School co-founders Joe Negron and Jeff Li said they did not think it was “prudent” to open the school until the 2021-22 school year given the current public health crisis.

“The unknowns and risks associated with the COVID-19 crisis are affecting all schools across our city, including our existing schools at KIPP NYC,” they wrote. “Amidst this uncertainty, we did not think it was prudent to open KIPP Beyond at this time.”

The postponement is an example of how the disruption caused by the coronavirus is beginning to extend from this school year into the next one.  It’s also a setback for a school that’s already struggled with community pushback, and it pauses an integration effort in a part of Manhattan where many schools are starkly divided by race.

When the school does open, KIPP still plans to use a weighted lottery to achieve socioeconomic and racial diversity. It’s aiming to reserve 60% of seats for children from low-income families, while 40% of seats would go to other students — a departure for a network that serves largely low-income students and predominantly black and Hispanic children.

Although Manhattan’s District 3 created an integration plan for district middle schools, the parent-led community education council tried to prevent KIPP Beyond from opening at all in the area spanning the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights and the southern part of Harlem. Some locals feared the new charter school would interfere with the district’s own integration plan. They also worried it would further stress the district’s already under-enrolled middle schools.

The charter’s founders, meanwhile, believe that they are filling an unmet need in the district and are aiming to enroll a student body reflective of the district’s demographics.

“For well over a year, we’ve been listening to and learning from the community, meeting families in their homes, coffee shops, parks, churches, and libraries,” Negron said in a statement in late February. 

Negron, who lives in the district, said the middle school will provide “an option that families want and doesn’t exist in District 3 — a public school that is academically rigorous, unscreened, and intentionally integrated.”

In addition to the core academic subjects of science, English, math, and civics, the school plans to offer music, social entrepreneurship, debate, Spanish, and robotics. Physical education and meditation will take place throughout the week. To support social emotional learning, students will take part in a weekly “community circle.” (Staff will mirror this practice with a regular faculty circle, as well.)

Negron said he received hundreds of applications for KIPP Beyond’s 95 seats before postponing the opening of the school, which will share a building with Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School.

Applicants will now have the KIPP middle school closest to the Beyond campus — KIPP STAR Harlem Middle School, about a 10-minute walk away — automatically added to their applications. KIPP has also extended the deadline for making changes to applications from April 1 to April 10. The network plans to hold the lottery for New York City KIPP locations on April 15 .

District 3’s community education council last year tried to block KIPP Beyond, sending a letter and circulating a petition urging the SUNY Charter Schools Institute to reject the network’s proposal. The parent advisory board — which doesn’t have formal power to block charters — worried the new school would hinder the district’s own fledgling integration plan

The district set aside a quarter of seats at each middle school for students who are poor and struggle academically. It was the first district-wide desegregation plan in New York City. But it fell far short of the steps taken in Brooklyn’s District 15 and has produced only modest results so far.

Matt Gonzales, who directs New York University’s Integration and Innovation Initiative, believes that District 3’s admissions policies remain too exclusionary, even with their new integration plan. The district still allows academic screens that funnel white and wealthy students into certain schools, he said.

In contrast, KIPP Beyond’s model is “actually more accessible than all of the schools in the district,” Gonzales said. “[That] sends a message to the school community that it’s possible to create diverse and rigorous classrooms.”

Gonzales has long been a critic of charter schools, believing that many charters have oppressive no-excuses discipline policies and that they drain resources from district schools. But he said that he met with KIPP Beyond’s founders while they were conceptualizing their new school, and he expressed cautious optimism about their approach to diversity.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, has also offered advice to the KIPP Beyond founders and is a board member of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, which has more than 50 member schools nationwide. She noted that integration has consistently been shown to benefit students of all races. 

“We can do something here that is potentially more powerful than resources alone can achieve,” she said.

Kim Watkins, president of the local community education council, acknowledged District 3’s approach to integration has been conservative, noting how difficult it was to reach consensus across the district.

“It is absolutely a valid response to the work that we did as a community that we didn’t go far enough,” she said.

But she didn’t think KIPP Beyond’s opening would address that, and she remained opposed to it, as she does to charter expansion in general.

Still, the new school has shown some flexibility in working with the community.

The community education council opposed KIPP Beyond’s original plan to begin enrolling students in fifth grade, which is standard practice for KIPP middle schools across the country. The council argued this would be disruptive to area elementary schools, given that district middle schools traditionally begin in sixth grade.

The founders of KIPP Beyond ultimately heeded those concerns and plan to start their new school with sixth graders.

As the school remains on track to open after the delay, Watkins believes it’s important to seek common ground, even though her community education council does not have official relationships with charter schools.

“Their heart seems to be in the right place, and they’re good people,” Watkins said of Negron and Li. “[If we] can generate an alliance with any of the charter schools in District 3 in terms of how all of our students need to succeed, it’s a good opportunity.”

She added, “We’ll take it one step at a time.”

But KIPP Beyond’s first steps will have to wait another year. For now, KIPP is helping the 6,000 students it currently serves in New York City with resources for families, including remote lessons and guidance on food pickup and mental health.

Negron said he personally reached out to most of the families who applied to Kipp Beyond to inform them of the postponement. 

“We have built strong relationships and interest in the school,” he said, “and while this was not easy to hear for those families, they generally understood the decision and were appreciative of being informed personally as early as possible.”